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Learning to Swim

by Larry Lynch

Learning to Swim, the first collection from New Brunswick author Larry Lynch, presents seven stories that range in style from straightforward narrative to magic realism-tinged metafiction. It’s a mix that is always interesting, but not always successful.

The collection starts well with “The Rope,” the story of a young man discovering the truth about his grandfather’s death. Lynch’s prose here is swift and confident as he guides the reader through a tiny portrait of disaster while staying close to the emotional centre of the story. Equally poignant, though too brief, is “Buddy,” in which a ventriloquist finally finds his own voice. In these two stories Lynch eschews narrative tricks and concentrates on maintaining sympathy for his characters.

The middle stories are made up of exercises in form and style. The title story is the most successful of these. Not merely the story of a writer, but the story of a writer trying to write about a writer, it is interspersed with excerpts from a work in progress, including all the questions and doubts encountered in the writing process. It is an interesting study.

Another tale, “Absolutes,” is a Borges-like ficcione without any of the form’s intellectual heft, and it comes across like a failed Twilight Zone episode. And “The Weight of a Blind Dog,” a Garcia Marquez tribute, is an attempt to take a magical realist style and make it a little more real. In the process Lynch loses the genre’s sense of wonder, leaving only a gentle, lingering creepiness.

It’s unfortunate that the last story in the collection, “Topography,” the longest and most ambitious piece, never quite gels. It has plenty of moments that sparkle, but the thematic dualities are so contrived that the characters get lost in the mix. The reader never cares about the characters’ situations.

“Learning to Swim” is more than just the title story of this collection: it is Lynch’s writing philosophy. He is always taking chances, always pushing himself just a little further than he is able or willing to go.